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Symbols of Kwanzaa - © corbis

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Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26th through January 1st. It is a seven day festival celebrating the African American people, their culture and their heritage.

Derived from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza" which means "first fruits", Kwanzaa has its roots in the ancient African first-fruit harvest celebrations. However, its modern history begins in 1966 when it was developed by Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga. Inspired by the civil rights struggles of the 1960's, Dr. Karenga conceived a holiday that would bring African Americans together in celebration of their black culture.

Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday, not a religious one, and Africans and African-Americans of all religious faiths and backgrounds practice Kwanzaa. It is organized around five fundamental activities common to Continental African first-fruit celebrations:

  • ingathering of family, friends, and community,

  • reverence for the creator and creation,

  • commemoration of the past (honoring ancestors, learning lessons and honoring achievements of African history),

  • recommitment to the highest cultural ideals of the African community,

  • and celebration of the “Good of Life” (life, family, community, culture, etc.).


Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to celebrating one of the Nguzo Saba, or seven principles, which represent values and beliefs traditionally found in African cultures. These principles, which are described using the African language Swahili, are shown below.


The Seven Principles

Umoja (Unity)
To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)
To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)
To build and maintain our community together and make our brother's and sister's problems our problems and to solve them together.
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)
To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Nia (Purpose)
To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Kuumba (Creativity)
To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
Imani (Faith)
To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

~ Maulana Karenga

Source - The Official Kwanzaa Web Site


Kwanzaa is a time of celebration, community gathering, and reflection. It is traditionally celebrated in a central area of the home. A table is spread with a beautiful African cloth, and the mkeka is placed on the cloth. The kinara (a special candleholder that holds seven candles), along with six other important Kwanzaa symbols, is displayed on or immediately next to the mkeka.


The Symbols of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa has seven basic symbols and two supplemental ones. Each represents values and concepts reflective of African culture and contributive to community building and reinforcement.

Mazao (The Crops)
These are symbolic of African harvest celebrations and of the rewards of productive and collective labor.
Mkeka (The Mat)
This is symbolic of our tradition and history and therefore, the foundation on which we build.
Kinara (The Candle Holder)
This is symbolic of our roots, our parent people -- continental Africans.
Muhindi (The Corn)
This is symbolic of our children and our future which they embody.
Mishumaa Saba (The Seven Candles)
These are symbolic of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, the matrix and minimum set of values which African people are urged to live by in order to rescue and reconstruct their lives in their own image and according to their own needs.
Kikombe cha Umoja (The Unity Cup)
This is symbolic of the foundational principle and practice of unity which makes all else possible.
Zawadi (The Gifts)
These are symbolic of the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by the children.

The two supplemental symbols are:

Bendera (The Flag)
The colors of the Kwanzaa flag are the colors of the Organization Us, black, red and green; black for the people, red for their struggle, and green for the future and hope that comes from their struggle. It is based on the colors given by the Hon. Marcus Garvey as national colors for African people throughout the world.
Nguzo Saba Poster (Poster of The Seven Principles)

Source - The Official Kwanzaa Web Site


The colors of Kwanzaa are black, red and green;

  • black for the people,

  • red for their struggle,

  • and green for the future and hope that comes from their struggle.


These colors are reflected in the seven candles displayed in the kinara;

  • The black candle represents the first principle Umoja and is placed in the center of the kinara.

  • The red candles are placed to the left of the black candle and represent the principles of:

  • The green candles are placed to the right of the black candle. and represent the principles of


The black candle representing Umoja is lit first on the first day of the celebration. On the second evening of Kwanzaa the black candle and the left red candle representing Kujichagulia are lit. On the third evening, the black and red candles are relit and the left green candle for Ujima is lit.

The remaining candles are lit from left to right in this manner on the following days of the celebration. This order signifies that the people come first, then the struggle and then the hope that comes from the struggle.

Each evening while the candle is lit, all of the people at the celebration talk about what that day's principle means to them and how they have practiced it during the day. Other activities may be organized to practice and promote the principle of the day. After the discussion, everyone makes a commitment to practice the principle throughout the year, and seven "Harambee" (Swahili for "Let's all pull together") are called out.

On December 31, families and communities hold a Karamu, a special feast including readings, remembrances and a festive meal. The Karamu feast may include traditional African dishes as well as those featuring ingredients Africans brought to the United States, such as sesame seeds, peanuts, sweet potatoes, collard greens, and spicy sauces. The celebration may be held at a home, a church, or a community center.





The Official Kwanzaa Web Site




Kwanzaa - Seven days of Kwanzaa, seven days to celebrate - 1:31/1.1MB. (c) Nancy Stewart - used by permission.

Nancy Stewart is a professional musician who has won national and local awards for her songwriting and children's recordings. For more information, visit


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